These Boots Were Made for Selling

The hottest site for haute couture? It's eBay. If you're Manolo Blahnik, is that a good thing?

Search for "Manolo Blahnik" on eBay, and you'll get smacked with long lists of carnival-worthy sales pitches: "NEW MANOLO BLAHNIK MARY JANE SZ 371ff2 RARE!!" Or "The Most Fabulous and Famous OKLA Boots by MANOLO BLAHNIK." Buy it now: $479.

Welcome to the world of haute couture, eBay style, where hordes of anonymous, brandless sellers have all the fashion you need: new, old, worn, and fake.

To which Manolo Blahnik responds, "I don't know anyone who buys or sells Manolo Blahniks online." This is Ana Holwell, cuddly press coordinator for the oh-so-of-the- moment Manolo Blahnik boutique in New York. "It's not like we personally check."

But maybe they should.

EBay, once exclusively the down-market preserve of Beanie Babies scalpers and baseball-card fanatics, has seen some of its most explosive growth in the luxury-goods category. The site recently listed 2,046 sales for Prada bags, and 1,744 for Marc Jacobs pieces. Stella McCartney, Chanel: You name the high-end designer, someone's auctioning the stuff.

EBay's Clothing, Shoes, and Accessories category brought in an estimated $1.3 billion worth of transactions for 2003. And Lily Shen, the category's senior manager, says she has witnessed a dramatic shift in the products offered on the site since 2001. Back then, vintage items were hot and new products made up only 15% of inventory. Now, new products account for 50% or more, with luxury items leading the charge.

But by all indications, elite fashionistas aren't fueling this boom. Rather, it's ladies in Peoria who suddenly want the latest Manolos, thanks to such shows as Sex and the City that have democratized the rarefied world of fashion. Which raises this question: Is eBay good or bad for retailers like Manolo Blahnik?

On the one hand, reselling such apparel arguably broadens the base of potential customers and, so, a brand's appeal. But Peter Littmann, a Hamburg, Germany-based branding consultant and former CEO of Hugo Boss, says sites like eBay pose a threat to the identities that luxury brands have worked so hard to create. "Part of the beauty of these brands is that you do have to travel to Paris, to London, to Madison Avenue to get them," Littmann says. "Luxury brands are fragile, and they already face many other challenges. The Internet is the last thing they need."

In its very eBay way, the company says it doesn't want to compete head-to-head with high-end boutiques. (It simply wants to be the place where hard-to-get items are scalped and leftover crap is hawked--you know, eBay's core competencies.)

But in its very next breath, eBay declares it would like to see even bigger growth from fashion. Thus, its advertisements in Vogue, and its hiring last summer of Constance White, a respected fashion journalist, as fashion-business style director. To top it off, eBay teamed up with designer Narciso Rodriguez (one of Sarah Jessica Parker's faves) at this year's Fashion Week in New York, afterward creating a special page featuring several of the designer's items.

One retailing analyst who covers the luxury sector (but wouldn't let his name be used) says while the eBay phenomenon will tarnish the allure of luxury brands, that doesn't mean sales will suffer. Basically, he argues, rich people won't stop shopping for exclusive brands at expensive stores anytime soon.

Some fashionistas even smell opportunity with eBay. White tells the story of a very chic friend who was one of the first to snare a Balenciaga bag, a superhot item when it came out. By the end of the season, when she was ready to ditch it, she decided to sell it on eBay rather than throw it in the closet. Miracle of miracles, the out-of-season bag for which she paid $700 went for $1,200 online. High fashion doesn't get any better than that.

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